The Catholic Church is once again on the verge of validating the worldview of the NYT—or so the Grey Lady seems to believe. The NYT‘s enthusiasm this time concerns a document released in the middle of the ongoing Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops, convened to discuss marriage and the family.Here are the facts as we know them. In October of last year Pope Francis announced that the Vatican would host a gathering of select Bishops from around the world this month. (For more about what a synod actually is, and how it relates to other assemblies of the Catholic Church, see this helpful primer from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)The hot-button cultural issues popular in the NYT newsroom have been on the agenda from the start. In advance of the gathering, dioceses around the world sent out a survey to ordinary Catholic parishioners, asking them questions about their beliefs on topics like divorce and contraception. In addition, members of the Catholic hierarchy engaged in a public debate over whether remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive communion. Seeing all of this, Catholics and non-Catholics alike who wish the Church to sound more progressive began to cheerlead the Synod before it even began, hoping for a major revision in Church tone or doctrine.Yesterday it seemed like their prayers were answered. The Synod released a short document called Relatio post disceptationem, or “report after the discussion.” The document is neither a final report nor a complete statement of the Synod’s position on sexual ethics, but rather a rough draft report of the discussion that has so far occurred midway through the Synod. In a piece on the report, John Allen Jr. notes that “a midterm report in a synod of bishops has no official standing in Catholic theology as a statement of binding church teaching.” He further highlights that the Synod’s forthcoming final report will itself be provisional, since it is meant only to lay the groundwork for another, larger meeting in October of next year. The report in question, then, is a provisional draft of a non-binding recommendation to the Pope that even in its final form will only be setting the stage for another meeting next year. That didn’t stop it from exciting the media, which tends to dismiss the Church as a relic of the Dark Ages but apparently has an insatiable appetite for anything the Church says on sexuality. The New Yorker called it a “bombshell document”, while CBS deemed it a “seismic shift.” Other reactions were similar.The section of the report that inspired the media fervor had to do with the moral status of cohabiting couples, remarried Catholics, and homosexual relationships. In particular, the document notes that the remarried are to be treated with respect, and that there are “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation.” These aspects include “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice.” Furthermore, the document says, in a highly quoted passage, that “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” The reaction from the NYT is typical:
The document was greeted with instant enthusiasm by gay rights groups and advocates of church reform who have been hoping the synod would produce substantive change.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for gay Catholics, said, “These recognitions are total reversals of earlier church statements which labeled such an orientation as ‘objectively disordered’ and which viewed gay and lesbian people in faith communities as problems and suspect persons.” […]The Rev. James Martin, editor at large of America, the Jesuit magazine, said that “even though this is an interim document, it represents a revolution in the way the church speaks about our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”
But the idea that some good can be found in relationships that Catholic doctrine considers irregular or inherently disordered is not a new position. And the document changes nothing about remarried Catholics receiving communion, nor did it change, for example, church teaching about the nature of marriage. On the contrary, the document explicitly reaffirmed the Catholic opposition to recognizing gay unions as marriages, albeit in language that was milder than some would have liked (“unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman”).Elizabeth Dias at Time has a helpfully deflating take here. Even the idea of a “tonal shift” seems suspect. Anyone who has ever attended Catholic wedding prep class or seminar in an average American parish, for example, knows that cohabiting couples are already treated in a very accommodating way.It will be interesting to see how the Synod’s report develops as it nears its final form, especially in light of the criticism conservatives have directed at the report’s current language. But in the meantime, we appear to be dealing here with another instance of the media being coaxed into cheering on a restatement of Catholic theology. That feat, at least, remains notable.